Tough Question at Prairie Lights

Halfway through my reading at Prairie Lights in Iowa City last night, a woman raised her hand and asked about my story, “Funnyboy.”

She asked, essentially, whether Missy Jones — a sort of bumbling high school cheerleader — is really just a stereotype. A flat, easy characterization the relies on and propagates false assumptions. It was a fair question, respectfully asked — even if the questioner seemed somewhat annoyed by the portrayal.

My answer to her: You’re right.

I’d only read the first third of the story. Up ’til that point, the only view we have of Missy Jones is through the eyes of Levi Stern, a bitter, sarcastic, angry father who blames her for killing his son in a traffic accident. Levi’s perspective is absolutely one-dimensional. He views Missy, to that point in the story, as the stereotypical achetype of a high school cheerleader. And worse.

It’s not until later in the story (the part I didn’t read) that Missy actually comes in as a character. My hope is that once she’s actually there, on the page, she starts to take shape as a flesh-and-blood person, by the end fully-formed, one perfectly at odds with the stereotype Levi expected to find.

It left me thinking about the what happens, at a reading, when we read only part of a story. Our stories, and our characters, are vulnerable to partial- or mis-interpretation. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s part of the point of a reading: accessing a small part of a larger whole on its own terms, listening to what that part alone has to tell us.

I certainly learned something. And I’m thankful for the question.

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